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'Lagom': Why Swedes Are Happier Than Us

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I have a confession to make: I'm a Swedophile.

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The cast of BBC Radio 4's The Cold Swedish Winter

Nine years ago I stood onstage performing stand-up in a tiny North London pub theatre, staring at my audience and in particular a blonde-haired, blue-eyed descendent of the Vikings who, a few post-show drinks, several dates and a wedding later, is now my wife. In the years Eva and I have been together I have become fascinated by her homeland, a fascination that has culminated in my new semi-autobiographical BBC Radio 4 sitcom The Cold Swedish Winter. It's about Geoff, a struggling British stand-up comedian played by Adam Riches, forced to move to Sweden when his girlfriend Linda gets pregnant and decides they should raise the baby in her home town, the utterly unpronounceable Yxsjö.

There has for some years now been a great deal of interest in Sweden here in the UK. I think this stems largely from the fact that Swedes seem like a happier, more successful version of us. You know all those things we've got that are a bit broken - like schools, hospitals, public transport, welfare and politicians? Well, they actually work over there, and people are nice to each other - weird, I know.

What is their secret? It could be summed up in one word: 'lagom'. Lagom is a uniquely Swedish word with no direct translation into English. It means 'not too much, not to little', 'adequate', 'sufficient'. You can have a lagom amount of meatballs, live in a lagom house, and have your heating set to a lagom temperature. This single word encapsulates the entire Swedish socially democratic philosophy on life: that everyone should have enough but not too much. Swedish companies such as IKEA and H&M have perpetrated a staggeringly successful yet subtle act of ideological imperialism, selling lagom around the world; everybody can afford to buy their products, they're functional and nice, but not too nice. If you own a Billy bookcase or wear H&M jeans, you're lagom and you don't even know it.

So, would we be happier if we embraced lagom more fully, not just the egalitarian flat-pack furniture but the whole 'let's share the wealth out and try and create a less competitive more compassionate society' thing too? Seen as a positive, lagom embodies fairness; seen as a negative, it encourages mediocrity and conformism. As Geoff's friend Ian says in The Cold Swedish Winter, "if lagom was a colour, it would be beige."

The idea of social fairness seems a little quaint to us individualist out-for-ourselves Brits, probably even more so to Americans. Lagom is the antithesis of the American Dream, which is based on keeping two diametrically opposed parts of society: the poor who aspire to having everything and the rich who have achieved it and flaunt it. If I had to think of an opposite to lagom it would be Kanye West. It's probably why, despite the fact so many great bands have come out of Sweden, there has never been a successful Swedish rapper; bling is so un-Swedish. Where US rappers would boast about the size of their mansion a Swedish rapper might comment on how well-insulated and fuel-efficient his crib is.

Personally, I think lagom has a charm to it. I'm glad it still exists in today's world and am always surprised how engrained it remains in the Swedish psyche. I began by saying the Swedes are similar to us, but their social conscience and everyday awareness of the greater good represents a key difference. Swedish streets are litter-free not because Swedes fear fines but because they think dropping litter would make the street less nice for other people. My street in London is litter-strewn and covered in dog poo because people can't be bothered to clear it up.

There will be Swedes reading this who will say that the spirit of lagom is dying out; they will rightly argue that their country is changing and becoming more like the greedy, heartless UK, but you know what? You still have a long long way to go. So, will I be moving to Sweden like Geoff? No, it's cold and I hate sharing.

The Cold Swedish Winter is on Mondays at 11.30am on BBC Radio 4 until 1 September. It is also available on the BBC iPlayer.

Danny Robins' play Rudy's Rare Records is on in Birmingham and London in September.

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